Order a steak and a salad at a Baltimore-area restaurant these days, and chances are the greens and beef were raised nearby—probably the goat’s cheese, tomatoes, and green beans, too—as more and more restaurants embrace the popular locavore trend. In fact, it seems you can’t read a menu these days without learning the pedigree of your food. Woodberry Kitchen goes so far as to include the farm name in its offerings: “Liberty Delight Beef & Egg Noodles,” “Fountain Farm Fresh English Peas,” and “McCarthy Farm Butter Bean Dip.” But the “farm-to-fork” practice has done more than bring the freshest products to our plates. It’s connected the chefs, who cook the food, and the farmers, who are growing it, creating close ties that benefit everyone involved.
Executive chef/owner Galen Sampson of The Dogwood in Hampden sought out the growers early on. When he opened his restaurant nearly six years ago, he started going to the Waverly Farmers’ Market in his Honda Element and stuffing it with local produce. “We knew it was going to be a focal point,” he says.
He’s not alone. We talked to several local chefs and farmers they work with to learn more about their relationships and what they mean to the Baltimore dining scene.
Perhaps the most recognizable locavore chef on the Baltimore restaurant scene is Spike Gjerde, owner of Woodberry Kitchen.
“He’s on another level of local,” says chef Chad Wells of Alewife restaurant. “I really have a lot of respect for what he does.”
“The local agriculture community is why Woodberry Kitchen exists,” says Gjerde. He views his interactions with local growers as long-term relationships rather than one-time business transactions.
He used to personally phone, text, and e-mail the farmers, but now he involves members of the kitchen staff as well. For example, the restaurant’s in-house butcher works with local livestock farmers, and the pastry chef manages the delivery of fruit. “That’s been a big step forward because other people are invested in the relationships,” says Gjerde.
One of those lasting partnerships is with Joan Norman, who, along with her husband Drew, owns One Straw Farm in White Hall. The Normans grow everything from arugula and eggplant to radishes and watermelon. And they’ve been selling to Gjerde since about 1992 (back in his Spike & Charlie days), “long before buying local or farmers’ markets became the thing to do,” says Joan Norman.
A few steps from her family’s yellow farmhouse are the farm’s strawberry fields, where Norman picks a bright-red berry bursting with sweetness and warmth from the sun. She said the food from One Straw found in farmers’ markets and restaurants has probably been picked within 24 hours, in contrast to fruit shipped from California that’s spent days on a truck. “Chefs who are willing to do this benefit in flavor,” she says.
Not that there aren’t challenges in dealing directly with farmers, such as too much or too little rain, anticipating the timing of harvests, or the availability of any particular fruit or vegetable. But these problems don’t scare away the chefs.
“I honestly think they enjoy the puzzle,” Norman says. “I think it becomes a game or a dance where they enjoy the extra challenge rather than just looking at a spreadsheet from a wholesale house. It’s fun when they enjoy the dance with you.”
Waterfront Kitchen in Fells Point publishes a long list of local partners on its menu, including Chapel’s Country Creamery, Truck Patch Farms, and The Hen’s Nest. There’s also a contribution that might surprise some people. Local students grow food for the restaurant, too.
Jerry Pellegrino, a consulting chef, has a hands-on role in the Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS) program through the restaurant’s partnership with the Living Classrooms Foundation. “We’re growing [crops] with kids whose original impression is that food comes in a plastic bag,” he says.
The kids plant spring peas, bulb onions, cabbage, spinach, radishes, Swiss chard, garlic, and tomatoes in raised beds and in the greenhouse at Living Classrooms’ Harbor East campus. Their harvest is carried directly into the restaurant, where diners select from menu items often made with the food grown by the students.
On Mondays, when the restaurant is closed, Pellegrino also leads cooking classes for the students. “The kids are wowed from day one,” he says. “Their excitement never wanes.”
When The Dogwood opened, it was at the forefront of the local-foods movement. “We were one of the few restaurants at that time to embrace that concept and try to get the most out of it,” says executive chef Galen Sampson, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Bridget.
He continues to establish relationships with nearby growers, including Simmer Rock Farm and Big City Greens. Today, farmers often approach the restaurants to introduce chefs to their products, he says.
Shane Hughes at Liberty Delight Farms in Reisterstown cold-called Sampson, and now The Dogwood gets all its brisket and ground beef from the farm. Sampson appreciates Hughes’s philosophy in raising livestock—free-range, drug-free, all-natural. The quality of the beef makes the difference, Sampson says. “The creative part is finding good producers who are doing things the right way,” he says.
Liberty Delight Farms sits on 80 acres adjacent to Liberty Reservoir. Four Great Pyrenees dogs and a yellow Lab guard the farmhouse next to the barn, while cows and their calves graze on rolling hills in the distance.
Hughes welcomes visits from chefs. “There’s nothing to hide,” he says. “It gives them comfort knowing that the animals are here and cared for, treated well, and fed well, and raised right.”
The farm raises cows, pigs, and chickens, and works with another farm to provide lamb, rabbits, and turkeys. Hughes appreciates it when chefs list his farm on their menus, and says he also gets positive feedback from diners. “It’s just a win-win for everybody,” he says.
Before Manor Tavern in Monkton opens for Saturday brunch, executive chef Travis Szerensits walks among the 24 raised beds on the property, kitchen shears in hand. Dressed in black-and-white chef’s pants and a black smock and squinting in the sun despite his camouflage hat and sunglasses, he fills plastic bins with red and green baby lettuces. “We’ve become well-known for our salads,” he says. “They’re picked, triple washed, and people are eating them that day.”
In addition to greens, the restaurant grows heirloom tomatoes, beets, watermelon, radishes, and garlic. Bees on the property will produce honey next year.
Manor Tavern also works with local growers like Baltimore Organics, One Straw Farm, Franzoni’s Verdant Valley Farms, and Springfield Farm. “Most things come from within 10 miles of the restaurant,” Szerensits says.
The chef enjoys seeing local farmers come into the restaurant to eat. “The community out here is great,” he says. “We help as many people as we can.”
He also stresses that the restaurant uses only Maryland crab. “We don’t mind spending the money to make sure the guests have the best meal they can have,” he says.
Chef Chad Wells of Alewife is passionate about Maryland crab. As a fisherman who likes to showcase seafood in his recipes, he believes Maryland crab is the best. “We have the most unbelievable fisheries in the world here,” he says. “We need to do our part to protect them and promote them.”
Although he’s visited other Maryland crab operations, “nothing was quite like what J.M. Clayton does,” he says. The Cambridge company has been in the seafood business for generations, having been started in 1890 by Capt. John Morgan Clayton. It’s now run by his great grandsons. J.M. Clayton sells to some restaurants directly, and works with distributors to reach others, such as Alewife.
“I try to push local seafood very hard down people’s throats. It’s something we have in Maryland that’s just amazing,” Wells says. He also has sent his kitchen staff to visit J.M. Clayton. “It helps them get a better respect for the product they’re using,” he says.
The restaurant uses local products as much as possible—including Caprikorn Farms for raw-milk cheddar and Gouda goat-milk cheese, FireFly Farms for goat cheese, and Five Seeds Urban Farm for produce. “I do my best with the people I know, the farms I know,” he says.